By Abby Thompson
Granny’s name was Lenora Kilpatrick. I never knew her. She was Nanny’s mother, my dad’s grandmother. I didn’t know her name until I asked my dad only weeks ago. I just knew her as Granny, 4 foot 11 and the salt of the earth. She was overweight, a small stocky woman with cropped hair, dark tanned skin, and eyes that were almost black. From the pictures I have seen, her face looks worn, but not hardened, like the lines in her skin were equal parts laughter and heartache.
Granny and her husband, Arnold, had four children, all girls, Doris (pronounced Darse), Ann (Nanny), Jo, and Pat, in that order. This is what my dad told me as I stood in his garage office, trying to get him to tell me something about his family, about my family. I never wanted to talk to my dad. I had hoped Nanny would tell me what I felt I needed to know, but deep down I knew she wouldn’t. There were holes, things missing, and even when I pushed, she’d direct the conversation elsewhere, going on about how Jo was jealous of her or how so and so was going to the church she didn’t like down the street.
I know Granny only through my dad. Nanny never had a whole lot to say about her mom. I know she loved her, but she always felt like her sister, Jo, was her mother’s favorite, and she was her dad’s. So each time I’ve tried to talk about Granny, she redirected the conversation back to Arnold.
But Granny raised her. Day in and day out, Granny was the one who was there while Arnold took all those jobs to make end’s meet. My dad said they lived so far back in the Nantahala Mountains they had to pipe in sunshine. Their house was small. Their floors were dirt, and in good years they each got a single Florida orange for Christmas. Mountain poverty was, and still is, real, and I find it difficult to look at the culture of Appalachia and neither demonize nor romanticize everything I don’t understand.
I picture old men on dilapidated porches, holding banjos and drinking iced tea while their wives sit beside them doing needle work. I imagine four dogs, one with three legs, lying in the dirt at the steps of the porch, not a single one on a chain. Someone’s always sweeping something, but it never really matters because the floor is made of dirt. But that isn’t the point. They took pride in the simple things they had, like dirt floors and old porches and gardens they carefully tended, because they needed them to survive.
At age 15, Granny married Arnold, and she had her first daughter, Doris, at 16. I asked my dad once if she wanted to get married at 15. He said, “Once you were 15, you were prime marrying age up in the mountains, and your family couldn’t afford to keep feeding you. It was all about eating back then.”
Salad and sandwich in hand, I walked through the garage and punched the buttons to unlock the door to my dad’s office. Dad was at his desk. He looked up from his computer and waved, still talking with someone on the other end of a conference call. I set the salad on the top of his large, wooden desk and leaned against the edge, holding the plastic kids’ plate with a picture of cartoon Hercules in one hand and eating my own sandwich with the other. I looked around. I’d seen everything in the office a hundred times before, and he never changed anything. It looked exactly as it had for six years, decorated in a Costa Rican/Jimmy Buffett theme. There were feathers and hand-painted toucans, framed and hung around pictures of my parents and their friends when they were young. A handful of awards from my dad’s work were either hung on walls or sitting on the shelves above his desk.
He said a polite goodbye to the guy on the phone and hung up, swiveling his chair to face me.
“Hey sweetie, what’s up?” This was the same greeting he always gave, but just to me. “Nothin’ much. Mom told me to bring you a salad and ask my questions up here. You sure you don’t wanna just eat downstairs?” I didn’t want to be up there, standing in front of his desk, awkwardly eating a sandwich while I was about to ask somewhat vulnerable questions about his life and childhood. I wanted to be downstairs, where my mom’s popping in and out could act as a buffer and cut the awkward tension I was sure only I felt.
“Nah, we can talk here. I can multitask.” Perfect. He could do other things while I asked him vulnerable questions about his childhood. “Dad, you don’t have a single chair up here. I guess you don’t intend on ever having guests? The only thing to sit on is that safe.”
“Yeah, well, that’s too heavy to move,” he said without offering a solution. So I continued to lean on the edge of the desk, standing as he sat, thankful to at least have the sandwich to keep my hands busy — roasted turkey with two leaves of lettuce, thinly cut cucumbers, mayo, and salt and pepper between Laura Lynn honey wheat bread. Had to be toasted, of course. Upon moving out of my parents’ house, I started buying local sourdough from the farmers market, but there was something about that grocery store honey wheat, and the faint smell of washed off sunscreen, that made me feel at home. I took a sip of the unsweetened tea my parents always had. They liked to add Splenda or some other ungodly artificial sweetener, but my brother, Garrett, and I learned to just drink it plain, a strange evolution in a Southern home.
Granny loved my dad, and from the tone in his voice when he spoke of her, he loved Granny, too. He looked up from his salad bowl, forgetting the work he had planned to do while we talked, and said, “Granny had a big, glass picture window overlooking the garden, and she’d always sit in there with a cup of coffee and a cigarette and watch the garden. She was looking for animals eating her stuff, and she’d come wake me up and say, ‘There’s a rabbit in the garden!’ I’d wipe the sleep out of my eyes. — you know, I was about 10 years old — and I’d grab the .22 rifle, sneak around the back of the house, and I’d dispatch the rabbit.”
Dispatch, a nice way of putting it.
“What did you do with it?” I asked him, setting the crust of my sandwich back onto the plate until I decided I was hungry enough to eat it.
“We ate it,” he said. “Couldn’t shoot it if you weren’t gonna eat it, except for crows and blackbirds.”
“Why those?” I probably could have guessed, but I asked to avoid any period of silence.
“They’d eat her garden and attack the hawks that ate most of the mice and rabbits. Her garden was her life. It was beautiful. At the end, they had tobacco, because they had a tobacco allotment from the government. Her job was to take care of the tobacco, and when it was time to cut, we’d all go out and cut the tobacco, take it to the pole barn, and hang it in the rafters so it would dry and cure.”
I nodded as he talked, picking up my sandwich crust and taking small bites, something else to do with my hands. My dad says Granny’s garden was unmatched. The soil in North Carolina is nearly black and full of rocks, making it difficult to hoe but good to grow in once you dug them all out. Georgia has too much clay, and the soil has to be carefully cultivated, mixed with compost, and then added back to the rows. But the soil in the mountains is rich and cool, home to all kinds of microorganisms that farmers love and appreciate more than most of us. Granny cared for her garden herself, knowing that her family depended on it for survival. My dad was her helper. Granny wore old jeans, the kind with the pleats close to the waistband, and an oversized, plaid flannel shirt. She wore red rubber boots that she called her “rubbers.” Dad said she wore those same shoes to work in the garden for as long as he could remember. She’d call after him through the house, “Go put your rubbers on, and help me!”
Dad would grab his own rubber shoes and pick a hoe. Granny used her old hoe with the grayed, wooden handle to break up the rocks and roots before she planted. She was a small woman, but she lifted that hoe over head before sinking the bladed edges into the earth like it was effortless. Tiny toads, grasshoppers much larger than the tiny toads, and all varieties of beetle dove sideways as her hoe struck the earth, skittering behind rocks and into small divots in the soil.
Dad hoed behind her, trying to break up whatever she may have missed. He never hoed in front because of the copperheads. Granny would see a snake, and the only reason my dad would know it was because he’d hear her say, “Snake.”
The longer half of a snake’s copper-colored body would go flying through the air, over both of their heads, and land somewhere to be picked off by the vultures. “Snake.” That was it. No hysterics. No yelling. No missing a beat. She’d see a snake, use the blade of her hoe to chop off its head, and fling the thing behind her. Dad would stop, follow it with his eyes, and then hoe faster to catch up, because Lord knew she hadn’t stopped to watch it land.
Granny was kind and gentle, but she was equally tough as hell. She had to be. She raised four girls in Nantahala virtually by herself.
“Oh, yeah, she was tough,” he said. “One night some drunk wandered up to their house, thinking it was his, and come in through the girls’ window. He climbed over them and their bed, when Granny heard the noise and caught him. She threw his ass right out, hitting him with whatever she could find until he landed face down in the dirt outside. She kept the ship afloat while Arnold was away.”
My dad thinks Granny knew Arnold cheated on her, and I think a part of my dad hated him for it. Dad was a mean kid. He hit, bit, and tormented anyone who was mild-mannered enough to let him do it. But Granny’s love drew him into her equilibrium, the tension between gentleness and determined perseverance.
Granny’s garden was more than provision. It was the thing that connected her to her daughters, to my dad, and to me. My mother has not much luck at growing things, and suburban life wasn’t all that conducive to learning the old ways. But it found its way to me, a love and respect for the earth and how a partnership with the soil makes me come alive. I think Wendell Berry said it best.
“The soil it the greatest connector of our lives. It was the source and destination of it all. It is the healer, the restorer, and resurrector by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
I never met Granny, not that I can remember anyway, but I think of her often. When I’m turned upside down in a tomato bed, trying to snag the red ones from under the near toppling plants, I think of her. When my skin, the same skin that carries her Cherokee blood, darkens in the summer sun, I think of her. When I bend my knee to the ground and bury both hands beneath the cool, black dirt, I remember that I am connected, and that I am not alone.